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Battle of Britain

So Much Owed By So Many To So Few

MOST literature has the Battle of Britain timeline running from July 10 to October 31, 1940, with a key date during the fighting listed as August 24, many historians seeing that as the night the course of the war changed.

Britain’s air defences were under sustained attack, the Luftwaffe targeting airfields, bases and key industrial facilities, with the Allies’ supply of both aircraft and pilots being stretched to its limits – it would be 16 more months before the Americans officially entered hostilities.

With the German air force’s commander-in-chief, Hermann Göring, continuing to prioritise the bombing of RAF and Fleet Air Arm facilities in an attempt to minimise their capabilities, civilian targets were largely avoided. The hope was a sustained assault would put key airfields out of action, so preventing aircraft from defending the skies of southern Britain, enabling the Luftwaffe to protect their own forces crossing the Channel, the ultimate aim for the Heer (German Army) to land on British shores and force a surrender.

German invasion barges waiting at Boulogne Harbour, France during the Battle of Britain

(German invasion barges waiting at Boulogne Harbour, France during the Battle of Britain)

The Germans had positioned a variety of landing craft at a number of locations across northern France as part of Operation Sea Lion: the air and sea assault planned for Britain after the Luftwaffe had gained superiority over the skies above the Channel. While the actual scale of the invasion required to force Britain to consider capitulating to Hitler’s demands have left many to conclude Operation Sea Lion was always in the realms of fantasy, Hitler did issue Directive 16 on July 16, ordering preparations to commence for the landing of German soldiers on the beaches of the south coast.

On the night of August 24, however, several German bombers, believed to be off course from their original military target due to a navigational error, dropped their payloads over residential areas of the East End of London, killing many civilians and in the process outraging Churchill. 

While some argue that the ‘accidental targets’ claim is false, and the Luftwaffe was already carrying out indiscriminate bombing raids across Britain, there is no doubting that Churchill ordered a response to the August 24 attack: the RAF carrying out its first Berlin bombing mission the following evening.

Whatever the truth about why Germany started hitting civilian targets, the aftermath of the Berlin raid saw Göring ordered to change tactics, with the bombing of Britain’s cities now entering the Luftwaffe’s equation.

Calais, September 1940. Göring giving a speech to pilots about the change in tactics: to bomb London instead of the airfields

(Calais, September 1940. Göring giving a speech to pilots about the change in tactics: to bomb London instead of the airfields)

The result gave some respite to the RAF, allowing Fighter Command to repair aircraft and airfields and replenish supplies, as well as shifting the focus of the Luftwaffe. By early September, airfield attacks had reduced while bombing raids over Britain’s cities intensified, the idea of the Blitz to weaken the public’s resolve in the fight against Germany’s aggression.

It was two months prior to this that Churchill had warned in a speech in the House of Commons, “the Battle of Britain is about to begin”, just weeks after the retreat from Dunkirk when 330,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force, BEF, sent to help defend mainland Europe, were ferried back over the Channel in a host of vessels after being forced by the advancing German forces to mass on the beaches of the French town.

Germany was firmly in the ascendancy and now switched its attention to an air and sea blockade of the Channel; having occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands, its focus was now on Britain, but Nazi military chiefs were well aware that a seaborne invasion opened up a host of difficulties. 

Battle of Britain Mug

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The British still controlled much of the Channel and the North Sea so the Luftwaffe initially targeted coastal shipping convoys and key sites on the south coast including Portsmouth, in an attempt to cut Britain off and draw the RAF into a fight. Hitler, meanwhile, was still hopeful that Britain would seek peace, and when he concluded that Churchill had no intention of acquiescing to his demands, he ordered preparations to commence for Operation Sea Lion.

Sustained attacks were launched in August against the RAF and Fleet Air Arm, with the Germans declaring August 13 as Adlertag (Eagle Day), when waves of German attacks were mounted over a ten-hour period against targets in the south east, notably in Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Essex. 

Fortunately, Adlertag proved a major failure, starting badly before getting progressively worse: the raids had already begun when attempts were made to call them off due to bad weather, Göring only confirming as late as 2pm that the operation was going ahead; the targets were wrongly prioritised, and many were missed; RAF fighters were successful in downing around 50 of their German counterparts with British radar capabilities a key element; and, even if the Luftwaffe had been successful, the impact on Fighter Command would have been minimal.

Much of the British success in defending key sites is put down to the Dowding System, the world’s first wide area ground-controlled interception network created by the RAF just before the start of the war. It used a dedicated telephone network to rapidly collect details from radar stations and Royal Observer Corps across the UK, building a single image of the entire UK airspace, directing interceptor aircraft and anti-aircraft resources against attacking German aircraft.

WAAF plotters pictured at work in the underground Operations Room at HQ Fighter Command, Bentley Priory, in north-west London

(WAAF plotters pictured at work in the underground Operations Room at HQ Fighter Command, Bentley Priory, in north-west London)

But the attacks remained frequent throughout August, with numerous setbacks for home defences following Adlertag, notably on August 18 when, after a day’s respite, sustained attacks were made of several key airfields, Kenley hit the hardest. The station on the outskirts of London, just south of Purley, saw all ten of its hangars destroyed along with numerous Hurricanes on the ground damaged beyond repair, with a radar station on the Isle of Wight also bombed out of action. 

While it would wrong to claim that Britain was buckling under the aerial onslaught, the decision late in August to widen the role of the Luftwaffe at a time when they were inflicting severe damage on Britain’s air defences was pivotal. There would still be bad days for Fighter Command, with August 31 proving the costliest in terms of home aircraft, 39 shot down and 14 pilots killed as the Luftwaffe launched sustained attacks in the Thames Estuary and across Kent, Biggin Hill suffering heavily in the bombardment.

But by September, the RAF had started to replenish supplies of people and equipment, with the defence of the capital on September 15 earning the moniker of Battle of Britain Day. The Luftwaffe launched an intensive attack on London, but Fighter Command was ready and able to deploy 17 squadrons: across a day of heavy and sustained fighting, Germany suffered severe losses, 60 of their aircraft shot down. The bombs that were dropped caused minimal damage and two days later Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion. 

Smoke rising from fires in the London docks, following bombing on 7 September

(Smoke rising from fires in the London docks, following bombing on 7 September)

While the Blitz of British cities continued, it had become evident amongst the heads of the German military that air superiority over the RAF was simply not achievable, truly remarkable considering the Luftwaffe had by far the greater number of planes and pilots. The RAF were reliant on the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire in Britain’s defence – the Boulton Defiant was also used but was withdrawn from daylight operations late in August due to high number of aircraft lost. 

The Germans relied on the Messerschmitts, Bf 109 and Bf 110, to protect their bombers: the Heinkel 111, the Dornier 17 and the Junkers 88. The Bf 109 was considered the best fighter plane at the time, with greater speed than the Spitfire at high altitude and carrying more effective armaments. However, its range typically didn’t extend beyond reaching London and it carried a limited supply of ammunition – if the dogfights it was involved in weren’t over quickly then the British usually gained the upper hand.

By October the German air force were focusing their attacks to nights to limit Luftwaffe casualties, and while they continued the bombing of major cities, the Battle of Britain ended with a resounding win for British forces, Fighter Command ending the campaign stronger than when it started with an estimated 40 per cent more pilots and more aircraft. 

Pattern of vapour trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight

(Pattern of vapour trails left by British and German aircraft after a dogfight)

While many airfields in Britain were hit, and many dogfights were fought across the UK, the focus of the Luftwaffe’s attention was on the south east, believing weakening London’s defences would open the door to a German victory. While many, rightly, pay tribute to the speech given by Churchill in August 1940 in the Commons, praising the skills and bravery of “the few”, the words of a pilot who was regularly scrambled to defend Britain at that time probably best summarise just how many in the RAF were, in their eyes, simply doing what they had to do.

“It (life) was very fragile, but strangely enough it was a good life. I enjoyed it,” said Wing Commander Paul Farnes, who flew Hurricanes with 501 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, seeing 20 of the 60 pilots he served with at that time head out on sorties, never to return.

Figures for casualties vary greatly, with Forces War Records putting the number of Fighter Command pilots killed over the three months and three-week period (July 10 to October 31) at 544, with around 1000 RAF planes shot down; German losses are believed to have been around 1800 aircraft. The names of those killed are displayed in a memorial book that rests in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey, with a stained-glass window inscribed with the badges of the squadrons operating during the battle along with the flags of the nations of the aircrews involved. 

Only one home pilot who flew in the Battle of Britain is believed to be still alive, Group Captain John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway, DFC, who recently celebrated his 103rd birthday.  

Around 20 per cent of the pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain were Allied forces, with around 600 of the 3,000 recognised as flying at least one sortie with an eligible unit of the RAF or Fleet Air Arm from outside the UK. The largest proportion were Poles, followed by New Zealanders Canadians and Czechs, with pilots also from the Caribbean, southern African countries and across Europe.

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